On 12 September 1819, Philip Parker King discovered the mouth of the Victoria River. Twenty years later, in 1839, Captain J. C. Wickham arrived at the same spot in the HMS Beagle. Crew members of the Beagle followed the river upstream into the interior for more than 200 kilometres.
In August 1854, Augustus Charles Gregory, assistant surveyor in Western Australia, was appointed leader of the North Australian Expedition. When they set off in 1855 from Moreton Bay it would be more than a year before they returned safe and well to Brisbane. They explored large areas of the Victoria River catchment area and went as far as 500 kilometres south to the edge of the Great Sandy Desert. The expedition was a great success and once and for all proved that there was no inland sea but plenty of land suitable for pastoral development.
Members of the expedition were his brother H.C. Gregory, Dr (Sir) Ferdinand Jacob Heinrich von Mueller, botanist, J.R. Elsey, surgeon, J.S. Wilson, geologist, J. Baines, artist and storekeeper, J. Flood, J. Fahey, H. Richards, G. Phibbs, C. Humphries, R. Bowman, C. Dean, J. Melville, W. Shewell, W. Dawson, W. Selby and S. MacDonald.
Some considered the country good enough to establish a tropical State, called Albert, after Queen Victoria's husband, with its capital on the Victoria River. However in 1863 the Northern Territory was annexed by South Australia. One early visitor to the region was Rev Julian Edmund Tenison Woods who travelled south from Darwin and called the river the Australian River Nile. Another well known visitor was John Flynn. In 1895, as a fifteen year old, he experienced first hand the rugged conditions of the outback when he was marooned for a month on a sandbar in the Victoria River.
Among some of the first to take out leases in the district were Charles Brown Fisher, born in London on 25 September 1817 and Maurice Lyons, a Melbourne Magistrate. Fisher was the second son of James Hurtle Fisher and had by 1875 become one of the wealthiest men in Australia. Together they stocked Victoria River Downs in the early 1880s. Most of the stock was overlanded by Nathaniel Buchanan who set out from Wilmot in 1881 with 20,000 head of cattle.
Buchanan had been, and still was, associated with the opening up and stocking of several stations in the Victoria River district and the Ord River region. Born in Ireland in 1826, he arrived in New South Wales with his father in 1832. He later conducted several exploring expeditions in Northern Australia with William Landsborough. In 1896 he assisted L.A. Wells to find his cousin Charles who had perished during the Calvert Expedition.
Fisher and Lyons also appointed Lindsay Crawford as manager. Crawford had been one of Charles Todd's men on the Overland Telegraph construction team and telegraph operator at Daly Waters. After many initial difficulties, and almost financial ruin Fisher was able to profit from his hard work and investment before the station was sold to Goldsbrough Mort & Co.
With white population slowly increasing in and around the district and an Aboriginal population of some 4000, Mounted Constable Willshire, formerly of the Central Australian Police Corps was stationed at Gordon Creek in 1894 to maintain law and order. This really meant keeping the Aborigines 'in line' on what would become Australia's largest pastoral property and cattle station in the world.
After Lindsay Crawford's resignation in 1894, Goldsborough appointed Jack Watson from neighbouring Auvergne station as the new manager. During his time the station consisted of 21,000 square kilometres and had 30,000 cattle and some 500 working horses. Watson died on 1 April 1896 while swimming stock across the Katherine River. He was replaced by his brother Robert. When Robert and his family arrived, his wife became the first white woman to live on the station.
On 30 January 1900, the station was sold to a syndicate made up of Sidney Kidman, Alexander Forrest and Isadore Emanuel who appointed Denis James Ronan as manager. He was later replaced by Richard Townsend. Alf Martin took over in 1926 and became its longest serving manager from 1926 until 1945.
During his years at the station he had many visitors among them the Governor of South Australia, Sir George Le Hunte in 1905 and Larry Wells, who surveyed the district in 1907. Other frequent visitors were Mick Madrill, who started a mail run, Randell Stafford and Harry Peckham, much better known as 'The Fizzer' from the book We of the Never Never.
Born in February 1872 in Adelaide, Peckham worked as a stockman at Renner Springs before he secured a mail contract in 1902. He obtained the mail contract for VRD in November 1907. He became well known and liked by every body in the remote outback. While attempting to deliver an urgent letter, seeking medical attention for a seriously ill woman on Victoria River Downs, he drowned swimming the flooded Dashwood crossing. His body was later recovered and buried on the river bank but later re-interred at the Elsey Station Cemetery on 14 September 1944.
Victoria River Downs was sold in March 1909 to Bovril Australian Estates for £180,000 with Sidney Kidman becoming a member of the Board of Directors until 1922. Although some reasonable profits had been made before the sale to Bovril, matters improved vastly when meatworks were built at Darwin by Vestey Brothers and by the Western Australian government at Wyndham. When the railway was extended from Pine Creek to Katherine transport costs were reduced remarkably. It also reduced the isolation of the district to some extent.
Nearby Humbert River station remained as Crown Land after VRD was formed and was taken up in about 1903 under Pastoral Permit by Newton and Kearney in 1903. It was resumed by the SA government in 1908 for use as an Aboriginal reserve, but this never happened. Billy Butler obtained a Grazing Licence in 1914 and he sold this to C.F. Schultz in 1919.
In 1919 Thomas Graham was appointed manager. During 1922 there was an outbreak of malaria Humbert River station, which caused the death of more than ten per cent of the station workers. Sister E.M. King, of the Australian Inland Mission, turned the homestead into a hospital to care for the sick and dying. Later a proper hospital was built which became known as Wimmera House. It closed down in 1942. Both the original homestead, which is located some kilometres south of the current Victoria River Downs homestead, and the hospital are now listed as part of the National Estate.
In August 1926 Alfred Martin became the new manager and had his wife and large family living with him at Victoria River Downs at the head station on the Wickham River. He still faced many problems such as low beef prices and later the 1930s depression. Martin, a butcher by trade had first worked for Durack but later went droving. From then on he managed Carlton, the VRD bullock depot at Wyndham for seventeen years. Martin turned out a great administrator and knew all there was to know of the meat industry.
During his time, VRD had its first official race meeting. In later years proceeds of these meetings went to the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Hell-fire Martin, as became known, remained on VRD until 1945, carrying the station through droughts, depression, war and resumptions. He retired through ill health and was replaced by Hartley Magnussen. Since that time the Big Run has been carved up leaving only about 12,000 square kilometres.
Well known carver, dancer and painter, Alan Griffiths was born in January 1933 at Victoria River Downs Station where he lived and worked as a stockman until 1957. In 1965 he went to Argyle Station where he married his promised wife Peggy. Alan and Peggy performed the Bali Bali Balga ceremony for the 1997 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award.
In 1960 the station was bought by Hooker Corporation, from William Buckland, who made many improvements, particularly in transport. By this time it employed a hundred men and the homestead had the appearance of a small country town. There was the manager's house, a store, kitchen, mess, offices, radio room, single men's quarters, bakery, blacksmith, saddlery, workshops and garages.
The station was sold once more in 1984 to Peter Sherwin for $12,000,000. By 1986 Sherwin had become Australia's largest cattle breeder. It was also during his time that heli-mustering, the rounding up of cattle by helicopter, first started as early as 1970, became very popular. Finally in October 1989 VRD was bought by Robert Holmes a' Court through his Heytesbury Pastoral Company. After his death in 1990, his wife Janet took over. The Big Run has since enjoyed the most stable and profitable period in its 120-year history, entrenching its status as the king of cattle stations.